Fifty years ago today, on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone and not as part of a larger plot, shot and killed President John F. Kennedy as he drove through Dallas in a motorcade. The previous sentence is historical fact, but something like 50% of the people who will read it will believe it is incorrect in one way or another.
The truth is that what many people think they know about the Kennedy assassination is wrong. It’s widely believed that shots were fired from the grassy knoll (none were); that there is some dispute about whether the shots that killed him came from Oswald’s rifle (it was proven beyond all doubt that they did), that Oswald could not have fired three shots in the amount of time necessary to kill the President (it has been proven that he could have), that the FBI couldn’t replicate Oswald’s shooting (they did, and in fact improved on his time), that the autopsy was botched (it wasn’t, at least not significantly), that the bullet that killed JFK had to do some kind of “magical” contortions in midair (it didn’t), or that that same bullet was found in “pristine” condition (it wasn’t). But generally the myths about the Kennedy assassination are more powerful and well-known than the truths. If a lie can circle the world while the truth is putting its shoes on, a myth about a traumatic event like the Kennedy assassination can go a lot farther and sink in to a lot more minds than historical fact can.
This article isn’t really about the substance of the Kennedy assassination. It’s about what happens when history takes a back seat to mythology. I already wrote about one aspect of this phenomena in my article about the “belief” that the world was flat in 1492; many people think that belief was widespread, but in fact everybody accepted the world was round and had for a very long time. Another famous myth is that Catherine the Great died while having sexual relations with a horse. It didn’t happen, but many more people know that false myth than know the true circumstances of her death (she died of a stroke).
Catherine the Great did not die while in a leather harness strapped under a horse; nor did she die on the toilet. Those stories are more fun to believe than the truth, but they aren’t truth.
Why does this happen? I think it’s because people have an unspoken assumption that history fulfills a fundamental need to explain the meaning of the world, and it doesn’t always meet that need–at least not in the way that mythology sometimes can and often does. The truth that Kennedy was snuffed by a single angry loner with a gun imparts little meaning to the momentous event of the assassination. A giant shadowy plot involving the CIA, the Mafia, Lyndon Johnson and the Cubans speaks much more powerfully to a narrative that we Americans, especially living since 1960 or 1975, have internalized: that our public life is subject to manipulation by unaccountable forces, and that we must be wary of them. We expect, viscerally, the JFK assassination to validate that narrative. When it does not, believing in the shadowy plot becomes more attractive than believing in historical truth. History just can’t measure up.
There’s another reason history often can’t compete with mythology: anti-intellectualism. Many members of the public view historians, like other experts in an academic field, as sort of an insular “high priesthood,” who have taken it upon themselves to decree from on high what history is. This “high priesthood” view naturally breeds distrust, and the assumption that historians expect their interpretations of the past to be believed because of who they are and what their credentials are, as opposed to demonstrating the substantive truth of their assertions. Historians aren’t alone in this. Scientists face it all the time, even worse. It’s why denial of manmade climate change gets press: the suggestion that all those credentialed experts being wrong is a “man bites dog” type of story that resonates. Most people enjoy seeing high-falutin’ experts proved wrong. It’s natural.
With regard to the Kennedy assassination, the layers of distortion separating historical fact from public acceptance are even more impenetrable. The vast majority of historians who have studied the subject believe that Oswald acted alone. People on the street, however, tend to think that historians believe this because they’re accepting the voice of authority–the Warren Commission, in this case–as a lazy replacement for investigating “what really happened.” This isn’t the case at all. It’s not as if historical conclusions, once they take hold and are generally accepted, are never again revisited, challenged, or opened back up to scrutiny. They always are. Thus, the conclusion that Oswald acted alone would be untenable if it was based solely on the say-so of the Warren Commission. The facts have to be independently verifiable.
I don’t believe Oswald acted alone because the Warren Commission said so. I believe Oswald acted alone because that’s what the facts indicate–facts which are independently ascertainable, regardless of what the Warren Commission said.
In this case, they are. It’s telling that the Dallas Police Department solved the JFK assassination within hours after it happened–and days before the Warren Commission was even established. They investigated the case, interviewed witnesses, found the rifle, traced its ownership and possession, found the suspect (Oswald), arrested him, and concluded that they had enough evidence to charge him. This was long before the federal government even got into the act, and it suggests–correctly–that the evidence indicating Oswald’s guilt was out there, and ascertainable, from the word go. Every piece of evidence collected since the assassination has pointed in the same direction. It’s clear what happened. There’s just no way around that.
But, it is probably also true that the real historical fact of the JFK assassination will always live in the shadow of the mythology. The history simply doesn’t measure up to people’s expectations. Mythology, by contrast, has no obligation to be true to what really happened. Fact may show that it was impossible to take a shot at the president from the “grassy knoll,” but that won’t stop the mythology of a shadowy grassy knoll assassin from becoming far more well-known than the fact itself. That’s unfortunate, but there’s probably not much we can do about it. History has fewer cheerleaders than mythology does. It’s just the way things work sometimes.